SpaceX Faces Reckoning after Starship’s Messy First Flight

SpaceX Faces Reckoning after Starship’s Messy First Flight

Billowing flames and clouds of smoke are typical for rocket launches. Destroyed launchpads and wreckage strewn far and wide across surrounding wetlands, however, are most definitely not.

Then again, the April 20 test flight of SpaceX’s gigantic Starship—the largest vehicle ever flown—was no typical rocket launch. Expectations for Starship are sky-high because SpaceX intends the system’s unprecedented power and planned routine reusability to revolutionize spaceflight itself while also landing NASA astronauts on the moon as early as 2025. But the bar was much lower for this test flight, which sought to send Starship on a near loop of Earth: SpaceX officials stated simply clearing the launchpad would be a success.

Starship exceeded that goal in more ways than one. Mounted atop its massive, 33-engine Super Heavy booster, Starship cleared the pad with such force that it left behind little more than a smoldering crater and far-reaching showers of pulverized debris. The rocket soared aloft for a few minutes before several premature engine shutdowns and the failed separation of the first-stage booster sent it tumbling out of control. This triggered Starship’s autonomous flight termination system, which, after a longer-than-anticipated delay of about 40 seconds, broke the behemoth apart and splashed its debris into the ocean.

Despite the technical snafus, many aerospace experts considered the flight a success for all the data it delivered to SpaceX engineers pursuing the company’s “iterative design” process to rapidly improve subsequent hardware. Yet as the smoke cleared and the fallout from the launch became apparent, the implications—for Starship itself and SpaceX’s southern Texas Starbase launch site—grew muddier. The unexpected site damage—plus a new lawsuit regarding the permitting process that allowed it to occur—seem likely to, at minimum, delay future sorties by the massive vehicle.

Cloudy with a Chance of Flying Concrete

Observers were stunned by the sheer size of the dust cloud raised by the launch. “At first, I didn’t realize it was an anomaly of the launchpad—I thought it was just the nature of this rocket,” says Philip Metzger, a physicist at the University of Central Florida, who used to work on launchpad technology at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “The amount of dust and smoke that came up from the launchpad was wild. I had never seen something that voluminous.”

Smoke came from other sources, too—chiefly a launch-sparked fire that, according to a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), burned about 3.5 acres of an adjacent wildlife preserve. FWS officials surveyed the blaze’s aftermath as part of a broader inspection of the area surrounding SpaceX’s Starbase facility that took place about 48 hours postflight, after the company restored access to the nearby Boca Chica Beach.

The fire, however, seems to have been one of the launch’s more limited environmental effects. “Impacts from the launch include numerous large concrete chunks, stainless steel sheets, metal and other objects hurled thousands of feet away along with a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site,” the statement reports.

“It was certainly somewhat of a shock to actually see the concrete rather than just pieces of the rocket everywhere,” says Justin LeClaire, a conservation biologist at Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the estuary-etched Texas coastline that surrounds Starbase. He says that the seemingly desolate mudflats around the site are vital habitat for shorebirds and that even moderate disruptions could threaten them.

Like FWS personnel, LeClaire surveyed the area two days after launch and says he was particularly concerned by the delay SpaceX imposed on outside observers. Although neither he nor FWS personnel found dead animals during their visits, LeClaire says that two full days would have given predators plenty of time to make off with carcasses, clouding assessments of the damage’s true scale.

Debris Debrief

Every rocket flight creates some debris, but the surprisingly large amount generated by Starship’s destruction of its launchpad is a cause for concern. “Rocket exhaust will just eat right through concrete and dig a hole. It’s like if you put a blowtorch on ice cream,” Metzger says. In Starship’s case, the launch force was so great that “every little bit of [the launchpad] blew out completely—it was a catastrophic failure.” Repairing the damage and ensuring it doesn’t happen again, he says, won’t be as simple as pouring fresh concrete.

Reports of nearby homes and businesses being sandblasted by debris are one thing Metzger finds especially surprising. “I’m mystified how sand went five or six miles away,” he says, adding that he’s now working with residents to test debris samples to better understand what happened. “Sand should not go that far from a rocket engine.”

In comments since the launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk downplayed the severity of the launchpad destruction, although he also said he didn’t expect the launch to completely tear up the pad. For Starship’s next launch, Musk said, SpaceX will implement a water-cooled steel plate, which might protect the pad—and the rocket, too—from harm. The idea had been considered before the April flight but was discarded to avoid delays.

“I don’t think I would’ve taken that risk,” Metzger says of using a plain, unprotected launchpad for such a powerful vehicle. “It could have gone really badly. They could have had the vehicle destroyed on the launchpad from ejecta hitting it.”

The looming question is when SpaceX might try to fly Starship again. Despite the postlaunch dustup, Musk has said that he believes a new vehicle could be ready to fly within six to eight weeks, although his timelines are notoriously optimistic. SpaceX declined multiple requests for comment from Scientific American.

Moreover, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is responsible for ensuring the safety of privately owned rockets, has grounded the vehicle—standard practice when a “mishap” occurs.

“A mishap investigation is designed to further enhance public safety,” according to a statement on the FAA’s website. “It will determine the root cause of the event and identify corrective actions the operator must implement to avoid a recurrence of the event.” Before Starship can fly again, the FAA must be satisfied that “any system, process or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” the statement continues.

All told, the FAA mishap process typically takes weeks to several months, depending on the complexity of the incident, the agency notes in its statement. If the FAA rejects the water-cooled steel plate of SpaceX’s proposed experimental launchpad protection system, the company will need to go to the Army Corps of Engineers for permission to construct a more traditional “flame trench” to mitigate damage. That process could take up to three years, says Eric Roesch, an expert in risk assessment and environmental compliance, who lives in Texas and has been following the situation at Starbase. “The stakes are really high,” Roesch says.

A History of Opposition

The judicial system is involved now, too. On May 1 local and environmental groups sued the FAA, claiming that the agency broke the law when it allowed SpaceX to expand operations at its Starbase site in southern Texas without undergoing a complete environmental review. The FAA declined to comment on the lawsuit for this article.

Ever since SpaceX announced its intention to fly Starship from Starbase, which is perched near where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico, opponents to the plan have vocally protested. Such mighty rockets, they say, could unleash untold havoc on the surrounding land, threatening the migratory birds, shorebirds, sea turtles and ocelots that it sustains.

Of course, the region’s human residents—most of whom are relatively poor people of color—could be threatened, too. SpaceX’s activities have raised particular concerns, given other proposed projects in the area, such as two liquified natural gas terminals and a pipeline. “We don’t want two explosive industries in a community,” says Rebekah Hinojosa, a local organizer with the Sierra Club. “This is textbook environmental racism.”

But residents maintain that the FAA and local governments have consistently catered to SpaceX and ignored their outspoken complaints. “I don’t think the FAA did the due diligence or even cared to listen,” says Michelle Serrano, a cultural strategist at Voces Unidas RGV, a community advocacy group based in the Rio Grande Valley. “They just went ahead and let it happen, even though the community raised so much ire over it.”

In particular, opponents have noted that SpaceX dodged a detailed review of Starbase’s impacts. Originally, the company presented the facility as a launch site for the tried-and-true Falcon 9 rocket, which has flown more than once a week on average so far this year without issue. As SpaceX enlarged Starbase to host experimental launches of the largest rocket ever built, the FAA decided the expansion required only an environmental assessment, not a more comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS)—a move that spurred the controversy now embodied by the lawsuit.

“No giant launch facility has ever been constructed without an EIS, and the EIS they had for the Falcon 9 rockets was so much different and so much smaller than what they have today that it’s a brand-new facility,” Roesch says. “The existing EIS is not a good framework to work off. It should have been a full EIS, and that would have identified more stuff—but critically, it would have taken a lot more time.”

Although Starship’s first test launch avoided the worst-case scenario—a rocket blowing up on the launchpad—last month’s launch threw wreckage beyond the bounds of the debris field SpaceX had outlined in its FAA documents as an estimate of damage that would result from that worst-case scenario.

The discrepancy is a major red flag that something went wrong during the regulatory process, according to Roesch. “This does not line up with what they disclosed to the public,” he says of SpaceX. “I don’t think they did their job of protecting the area or disclosing what the actual risks are.”

And that makes the damage from the flight powerful fodder for lawsuits such as the one already filed against the FAA. “I think it’s really incredible leverage,” Roesch says. “This was visible, and people have an emotional reaction to it.”

Still, local opponents of the launch site say that it shouldn’t have taken the destruction that unfolded to convince decision-makers not to take SpaceX at face value.

“Exactly what we said would happen happened, and it’s really, really disappointing, and it’s scary,” says Emma Guevara, a local organizer with the Sierra Club. “I’m disappointed that it took this much damage and this much danger for us to be taken seriously.”

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